Hip-hop is the voice of the oppressed in Ferguson and in Flint, but has also transcended all boundaries
Now, no offence intended, but a darkened field in Laois is the last place in the world I thought I’d have an epiphany about the state of global hip-hop.
But that’s where it happened. It was about midnight, the rain was stuffing it down on Stradbally and I blearily trudged under the shelter of the Electric Arena where grime legend Skepta had a crowd of thousands bouncing and shouting his lyrics back at him.
By now, it’s not an unfamiliar scene for the 33-year-old, who is finally basking in the global acclaim that’s followed his first album in five years, and shoutouts from rap legends across the world.
I watched the audience get hyped beyond belief as the horns of 'Shutdown' kicked into gear, and it was right there and then - as a Londoner, far removed from Brooklyn or South Central Los Angeles - that he demonstrated exactly why he is the hottest name in the game in 2016 and I realised that hip-hop is approaching an all-time high.
The genre that took over the world in the late 1980s and early '90s is journeying further than anyone could possibly have imagined. It’s become music’s most progressive frontier, and has changed the way we listen to music.
The place to start this is with the genre’s biggest star. And look, you might well think Kanye West is a clown and you’re well within your rights to do so, but as I said a few weeks back, why do you want your entertainers to be dull?
Image: Joel Ryan / AP/Press Association Images
His claim to be the biggest rockstar on the planet isn’t without merit. Does any artist in the world get more column inches or provoke as much adoration and ire? Nah. His latest Saint Pablo tour across the US has already drawn critical acclaim, not just for the quality of the back-catalogue of music, but for its innovation in staging. Kanye West rides around the place on a ridiculously cool floating stage, which has drawn comparisons with Pink Floyd’s 'The Wall' and U2’s '360 Tour'. Pretty rockstar right?
It’s not just grandiose ideas either. Working away in the background is arguably the most gifted writer of any kind this century; Kendrick Lamar. I’m not just talking about rap - I’m talking poetry, prose, fiction, non-fiction. This young man’s turn of phrase, his fusion of jazz and hip-hop, and his handle on the state of the world is unparalleled. I mean, just watch this. It’s my go-to clip to persuade even the staunchest of rap deniers that this young man has something special.
No matter how hard you argue it, or how much evidence to the contrary you present, hip-hop remains a bit of an under-loved cousin in Irish music.
So many talented Irish rappers never got the attention they deserved. Instead many were the subject of fly-on-the-wall half-mocking documentaries where they were the butt of gags and soon left by the wayside. That’s changing too.
Just across the field from Skepta at Electric Picnic, hundreds of people had earlier tried to wedge themselves into a shack which had sweat dripping down its wooden slatted walls to get a look at a stage where Rejjie Snow went toe-to-toe with Joey Bada$$, one of the hottest names in the game, and demanded attention like no other Irish rapper ever has.
He’s on the verge, and he has been for some time now, of potentially achieving something quite special indeed. It’s not just a Dublin thing. Rusangano Family, a collective from Clare and Limerick, put out what looks like it may well be the best domestic album of 2016. We’ve had some very good rappers from Ireland before, but we’ll struggle to match the current crop.
And that’s the thing. The "Golden Age" is here because hip-hop has no more boundaries left to break. It is the voice of the oppressed in Ferguson and in Flint; it’s the sound of pop radio; it’s the first outlet for musical introduction now. What’s a more user-friendly experience, trying to hit some rhymes or learning to play a piano or guitar without school funding?
The future of hip-hop is protected in its global appeal and as an open house for expression.
Can you imagine a Young Thug even ten years ago? A young rapper, wearing a dress on his album cover? Regularly cross-dressing and making a scene at NY Fashion week? Could you imagine it when hip-hop hadn’t matured and aging stars like Eminem still thought it was cool to throw out strange outbursts of homophobic, fragile masculinity?
So this is it. This is Miles Davis in Birdland; Hendrix at Woodstock; Bowie in Berlin.
It’s a fantastic turnaround from some the pretty bleak years in the late '90s and early '00s where dodgy lame gimmicks and pink fur ruled the scene. The state of world hip-hop has never been stronger. That’s why this truly is a golden era of the most exciting art form of the past 30 years.
Creatively, commercially and culturally, hip-hop is reaching its new pinnacle. Enjoy it for every second it lasts.